Friday, August 19, 2011

Friend's Accident On a Horse.

This has been a hard one to write. A few of you may remember that I rode at a place in Blanco, TX recently. During that ride, I rode with a friend, Alex. He had recently purchased a beautiful, palomino mare. The story was this: 6 year old mare, neglected recently by being underfed, allegedly well trained, good temperament, etc. The fellow he bought the horse from was willing to accept payments for the horse, bring Alex along in his riding, and help to put weight on the horse. I had no role in this purchase except to support my friend.

Well, when I took Lola to ride with Alex in Blanco, Tx, I had the chance to meet and ride this palomino mare. She was a good sized horse, a little thin, but solidly built and big boned. You could tell she was going to get huge with the right feed. You could also tell she was nervous, braced, and too much horse for Alex. She was high-headed and reluctant to canter. And Alex didn't know enough tricks to get her soft. With the help of the local cowboy, he was escalating his aids to get her to canter: leg kicks, clucking, yelling, screaming, cussing, and smacking her on the hind end with the rein end. She was, of course, only getting harder and harder to canter and requiring more and more stimuli. I could see a real rodeo about to happen. Thankfully, the local cowboy had to run off, and so this left the arena to Alex and me. To this point, I had been riding mostly on one end of the arena keeping my thoughts to myself and focusing on Lola.

But now, I joined Alex in riding, and I encouraged him to ride next to Lola and me. As I thought she would, his mare cantered more easily when she was asked to canter and follow Lola and me. The palomino mare was obviously feeling scared, wanting for leadership, and trying to figure out how to get away from the stimuli she'd been receiving without really understanding. She was really not in a place to ride independently from Lola, and Lola was distracting her from working.

Alex offered me a ride on his mare, and I reluctantly accepted. I don't like riding in saddles other than my own, and I was really wishing for a night latch with this new horse. I mounted well enough, noting that she was a tall horse and it was a long way down. I never really got the stirrups the way I wanted them. And when I tried to flex her from the saddle, she was just one big muscle and braced tight. This was no way to ride a horse. I did some hindquarter yields, and this got her thinking, which was better than braced. I did a little more flexing, and was making small progress with letting her realize that I was going to be offering a "release" quickly. But by this point, she was already too braced and wired to really get soft in just a few minutes, so I didn't do much more than walk and trot. I don't even remember if I asked for the canter much. It was clearly a disaster waiting to happen, and I didn't feel like getting bucked. I surrendered her back to Alex, and we finished the ride in the arena without challenging his horse much more.

I'm a big believer in: ask, tell, promise. In fact, I don't usually ask more than twice for something from my horse. If I move my arms forward and start walking from the saddle, that's me asking my horse. If the horse doesn't move forward, then I'll tell the horse to move with more forward hands and more energy from my seat. If the horse still isn't responding, heaven help that horse, because I will use everything in my arsenal to get that horse moving forward and I will not stop. And if I have to get on the ground and move the horse around for safety reasons, I will make that horse wish I had never dismounted. I never beat the horse, but I do make the horse work until I see signs of submission and softening and UNDERSTANDING.

If I've done my ground work, I shouldn't have to do much work from the saddle. What I saw in Alex's mare was that she needed ground work, tons of it. There was no submission, she had not accepted human leadership, and she was too darn dangerous to ride, in my opinion. I estimated 5 good round pen sessions and 10 more with longe work and lots of yielding. And my first rides with her would be in a riding round pen with less distractions. Only then, once she was moving freely into a canter at the FIRST ask, would I bring her out into the arena. I don't know where she came from, or what form of neglect she had received other than under-feeding, but there was a lot to learn about this horse before I would have felt comfortable with her.

But we survived that ride, and chalked it up to an adventure, and I got busy with work.

Alex went back to ride her about 10 days later. He took his family with him, and mounted her to ride in the arena. He asked her to canter, and she quickly started bucking. He was thrown, landed hard, and immediately had no function of any of his limbs. He was airlifted to a local hospital, where it was determined he suffered a C7 and T1 verterbral body fracture with some subdural bleeding. He recovered limb function about an hour after the fall, but will require a fusion surgery in the near future. He is looking to sell his horse back, and has been advised by his physicians to never ride a horse again.

I consider Alex to be a very lucky man. I went to the hospital a few hours after the event, and I can tell you he did not look pretty. The community has been praying for him, and I hope he makes a full recovery.

I, in no way, blame the horse. She might make a fine mount one day, for the right person. But she will need a skilled rider and some time.

It's just the same old story of a young horse with an inexperienced rider.

I felt really badly for a while that I didn't do more to keep Alex off that horse, but I've forgiven myself and reminded myself that I can't rescue a grown man. But I do think I'd do some things differently if I had to do it all over again. I'd probably be much more outspoken about my concerns. But short of that, I don't know what could have been done.

I hope this writing helps someone...


Anonymous said...

A very sad story - I don't know what more you could have done. The mare sounds like she had no clue what her job was or how to do it, and that sort of thing isn't fixed overnight. Hope your friend makes a full recovery.

Cheryl Ann said...

Oh, gosh! I feel so sad for your friend. What a way to end his horse riding days...I don't blame the mare, either.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

What a terrible thing to happen. I bet his family was/is devastated.

I have a mare that won't always trot or canter when asked. She tends to be rather lazy and prefers to walk down the trail, even if all the other horses leave us behind and it's just her and I.
I tend to be a very relaxed rider who prefers a slow ride down a quiet trail, so having a horse that gives me that is good for me.
My previous horse was super sensitive and would take off at the slightest change in energy level or a touch to her sides. She was barn sour and spooked easily, and she was also very agile and a quick mover, which is what helped end me up in the hospital when she teleported sideways a few years ago.
My current mare....I'm glad she's not herd bound or buddy sour, but sometimes it would be nice if we could ride with other people and move at a more steady forward gait.

I've been working with an experienced trainer and have learned a couple techniques to help me get her moving. What I was using before: Clucking, squeezing, kicking and my forward energy level don't always work. But swinging the end of my reins over her withers does.
I look forward to the day when my mare will be softer and more willing to move into a trot or canter with just a squeeze or with just my energy.

I'm curious as to what steps you take, while in the saddle to get a horse soft and moving forward at the pace or gait you are wanting.


Trailrider said...


I'm a fan of Julie Goodnight. She has an excellent show on RFD-TV, and one of them was on extending the walk for a horse that tends to walk slowly and not keep up with others on the trail.

I have 4 horses. 3 of them absolutely boogie down the trail with a naturally fast walk that I love and encourage in them. My newest, Joey, 4 years old, has a naturally slow walk and short stride. I use Goodnight's technique with great success to extend his walk.

Certainly clucking, squeezing, kicking, and a swinging rein can all work, but they can also be annoying, sometimes counter-productive, and hard to control (yes, I've used them all).

I let myself go loose at the walk, let my hips swing in rhythm with the horse's movements, and when I want a faster walk, I "let" my leg bump the horse during the walk, alternating the bumping on one side and then the other, until the horse has extended his walk. I can then "release" by not bumping, so that my leg bumps become a cue to walk faster. Ideally, and after much time, I want my horse to find a faster walk for MOST of my rides, and only slow when I want him too.

So again, if I am letting my hips move naturally in rhythm with the horse's movements, one of my legs is coming close to the side of the horse as my hips swing anyway, and then the other side as I follow the "swing" of the horse. Rather than keep my legs off the horse, if I can then let my leg "bump" the horse during this natural rhythm, first one side and then the other, the horse is bumped to move faster in his own rhythm, and it seems to be very effective and doesn't upset the rhythm of rider OR horse. We are merely asking for a faster TEMPO. And this cue is a SOFTER and more controllable cue than swinging a rein end, in my opinion.

ALSO, DO look up where you want to go, and make sure your reins are forward. Do NOT stare at the ground in front of your horse and do NOT have your hands back holding bit pressure inadvertently.

Also, a great game is to have a "walking race" with other riders. See who can walk the fastest to a designated point. If you break into a trot, you have to circle once, or alternately, get your horse back to a walk as quickly as possible. This game REALLY makes teaching your horse to walk faster fun and it's a practical application of the cues you are learning.

As for a willing horse that does transition changes willingly: start that in the round pen, ask for LOTS of changes; they start paying much more attention to your energy when they don't know when the next transition change is coming! But that's another topic. Enjoy.

Trailrider said...


Here is a better description, with pictures, of the Goodnight method.

Please let me know how it works for you.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Thanks so much. I do know of Julie Goodnight and have read some of her articles and watched a few of her videos, too. I do like her style and practical applications.

It was good to read about the bumping in rhythm to the horse's movement because that is one of the techniques that my trainer, Jessica, taught me last month during a lesson. And I was surprised at how well it worked, yet didn't cause me to get a Charlie Horse, like I got during a recent 7 mile ACTHA ride, from all the squeezing and kicking I had to do to keep my mare moving forward. The riding with the rhythm/bumping my leg was surprisingly rather relaxing and most importantly, my horse seemed very receptive to it as well.

So I will definitely be keeping that technique in my bag of tricks. I also ordered a Quirt recently and am hoping that just by having it on my saddle, it will help my mare remember to move up when I ask. Have you ever used one? Any tips?

Well, I'm off to go watch that video you included in your last comment.

Thanks again,

Trailrider said...


I have used a quirt, a short crop, a long crop, spurs, and even a tree branch, all when needed as an aid.

I don't think there is anything wrong with using these tools, if used appropriately. For example, in your efforts to get your horse to extend the walk, you can start with the bumping method described by Goodnight, but use any of those tools to enforce what you are asking your horse.

Remember the ask, tell, and promise I wrote about? You might ask with reins forward and energy, tell with the bump method, and then promise with the quirt. But when you promise, you need to be prepared to deliver on your promise; start with a little smack with the quirt, but be ready to escalate quickly if she doesn't respond. Just repeating the same stimulus and not getting the desired response is going to lead to a battle. And yes, after they know what that quirt does, just having it on your person can cause your horse to respond more quickly at the FIRST asking.

Most horses are eager to please us; if we just make things easy to understand and if we are consistent, they usually catch on. Some are just smarter than others.

One of my horses, Woody, is very broke. I just have to place my quirt on my saddle horn, and he knows he needs to step lively. I RARELY have to use it. But it works wonders for him when I am asking for his front legs to cross over. Without it, he is a little slow footed and lacks energy in this movement. A crop works even better, especially if it is a little longer, because I can be more precise where I apply pressure on his front shoulder. Quirts, in the traditional style, are rather floppy, and better for smacking a horse on the rear, in my opinion.

Use that quirt once, and after that, your mare may only need to see it out of the corner of her eye to respond to it.

Based on the fact that your mare is already responding to the end of your rein on her wither, I think the quirt will work for her. But if you start with the other things we discussed first, you may need it only rarely. She will start responding to the ASK and TELL, and you may never have to PROMISE.

By the way, I am very adamant about all my horses trotting and cantering easily. It is a HUGE issue with me. If they aren't doing that, I work on it immediately. If I've ruled out health issues, then not maintaining gait or going into a gait is a sign of willful disobedience in my book. I do not tolerate this behavior in my horses.

When was the last time you saw a horse misbehave going from standing still to the walk? How about from the walk to the trot? How about the trot to the canter? I'll bet most of the time the misbehavior occurrred when going into the canter. That's when the horse cow kicks, balks, bucks, etc. Who knows why? Maybe the horse was a little fresh. But maybe the horse was being asked to do some work that he was a little reluctant to do. And whatever the reason, assuming good health, I will not tolerate it. So if I rarely ask my horse to canter, I'm missing a HUGE hole in their training. I'm really doing them a disservice. And when I really want and need that horse to canter, he's going to buck and I'm going to get hurt. No thanks.

All gaits need to be easy to get to and should be sustained until I say otherwise. The horse does NOT get to choose the gait, period. That's also why I am huge on transition changes. Walk, trot, walk, canter, trot, etc. I want their mind soft and willing. I try not to pattern my transition changes so they can't think ahead; I mix it up.

Even if your preferred gait is the walk, your horse needs to trot and canter freely to be considered truly soft and willing. And to be considered safe, in this man's opinion.

Unknown said...

Alex, IMHO, was taken advantage of by a pretty unscrupulous trainer - unless Alex somehow indicated he was a much better rider. All you had to do was watch him ride and you could tell he needed a quiet, reliable mount, not a rescue. Who would sell a novice this horse?

It's tragic, and, worse, avoidable. I appreciate not blaming the horse, but there is some blame to be had in this whole picture. Somebody should string up that horse trader.

Trailrider said...


I understand what you're saying. And I do think the horse trader has some responsibility in this outcome.

But Alex was also partly to blame. He kept his shopping for horses limited to spirited, performance type horses. He had opportunity to look at older, more broke horses, and he elected not to. He's a physician, remember, and you know how hard headed they can be!

Alex has a LOT of guts, and I think maybe he bit off more than he could chew. He is a very brave guy, but I think in this instance, he'd have been better served starting slowly and not "skipping" the steps or horses he needed to have owned along the way, before he took on such a challenging mare.

I can relate, STRONGLY. I WAS "Alex", and was thrown by Scout, a 3 year old, nearly 16 HH palomino gelding, that was a severe mismatch for my riding ability at the time (by the way, a purchase that was against my trainer's strong advice). Thankfully, I survived that event, sold the horse, and found Spirit, and he's the gelding that brought me along in my riding.

Unfortunately, I don't think Alex is going to get a second chance.